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The autism field is filled with articles, websites, books, and testimonials about the potential benefits of various treatments or intervention strategies. From diets to dolphin therapy to discrete trial training, the sheer volume of options along with their purported evidence can be overwhelming.

These resources and tips can help families and practitioners navigate those claims and make informed choices about intervention options.

What Interventions Are Already Proven Effective for Individuals with ASD?

Several independent research groups have recently conducted rigorous and thorough reviews of the autism literature and have identified a number of evidence-based, effective practices for children and young adults on the autism spectrum:

  • The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder (NPDC) recently released a report that identifies 27 evidence-based practices. Online modules provide step-by-step instructions on how to understand and implement each of the evidence-based practices. These resources allow families and practitioners to select an intervention that matches the age range of the child/student and targets the desired outcome (e.g. communication, social interaction).
  • The National Autism Center’s National Standards Project (NSP) conducted a similar review of interventions for children and adults with ASD. The NSP identified 14 “Established Treatments,” its rating for interventions with the strongest evidence. The NSP also developed a manual for school staff and parents to assist in the treatment decision process.
How Can I Discern if These Claims are Legitimate?

The Internet is filled with testimonials about “cures” or “miracle treatments” for individuals with ASD. These strategies can assist families and practitioners in sorting truth from fiction:

  • Review the source of the claim. Look first to see if the described results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is the highest standard for quality and ensures that experts in the field have reviewed the methods and results to ensure rigor and accuracy.

If the results are from an unpublished study or dissertation, website, pamphlet, or interview, however, there are no safeguards to ensure that the study was well-conducted (or that any study was conducted) and the results are meaningful. The same caution should be used with books since they typically do not follow the same peer-review process. Review the author’s credentials carefully.

Several online databases can help in finding reputable sources for claims related to intervention results, including PubMed, SCIRUS, ERIC, and the use of Google Scholar. These do not include unpublished work, Internet claims, or unfounded testimonials, allowing families and practitioners to “weed out” questionable sources.

  •  Be aware of a sales pitch. Certainly authors who publish studies in peer-reviewed journals about specific interventions or strategies may also earn money by delivering these interventions to individuals with ASD in schools, homes, and clinics. However, if someone is promoting a service or product, that person should not be the only one conducting research on and promoting the use of that intervention. Also, if a researcher cites himself frequently in a study or claim, it may indicate that others in the field have not been enthusiastic about trying to replicate or extend the work.

In addition, ethical researchers disclose any perceived conflict of interest when earning money related to their research findings. For example, researcher Sally Rogers discloses in her work related to Early Start Denver Model, an early intervention model, that she earns money from the sales of a book on the same topic.


How Do I Make Sense of This Article?

As part of OAR’s Life Journey Through Autism series, OAR and Danya International developed A Parent’s Guide to Research, which serves as a comprehensive guide to reading and understanding a journal article. This resource provides step-by-step support from the initial reading of the abstract to deciphering the results and their significance, including these tips to help you get started:

  • Review the study participants in the Methods section. If you are reviewing an article to see if the results might apply to your child/student, it is important to note if the study participants are similar in age, skills, and other relevant characteristics to your child/student.
  • Review the study design in the Methods section. The most rigorous studies use both random assignment (e.g. all students have a 50/50 chance of receiving the intervention), as well as a treatment and control group (a group that does not receive the intervention). This allows researchers to compare the effects of the intervention across both groups and assume that any differences between the groups at the end of the study are a result of the intervention. There are other viable study designs, including single-subject design and designs that do not randomly assign groups, but they should be interpreted with additional caution.
  • Review the findings of the study in the Results section. When reviewing the findings, it is important to consider if what the study is measuring is applicable to what the family or staff wants for their child/student. For example, if a study were examining the use of music therapy to increase the use of single words in young children with ASD, but your child/student is already speaking in four-to-five word phrases, this would not be a relevant outcome, so the study may not be worth full review.

For most study designs, look for the term “statistically significant,” which indicates that there is a difference between the groups that is not likely due to chance, but likely due to the intervention studied. Often studies use a number of measures to gauge change across a number of skills. Note which outcomes were statistically significant, because an intervention may improve one skill area but not another.

Research in the field is growing and changing at a rapid pace, and it is difficult to keep up with the newest findings, as well as ensure that those findings are from a reputable source. With the support of the tips and resources included here, families and practitioners can navigate this process with additional confidence knowing that they are more discerning and more informed during the intervention selection process.

Kara Hume, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked in the field for 25 years as a classroom teacher, home program interventionist, consultant, trainer, and researcher. Her work is primarily focused on supporting individuals with ASD in school settings through intervention research, professional development for school staff, and enhancing the use of evidence-based practices in the classroom. She has the distinction of being the first OAR Graduate Research Grant recipient and Applied Research Grant recipient to serve on OAR’s Scientific Council.